A Jest of God – Tithonus by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Tenets of Tenneyson in Tithonus
“Tithonus” was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The poem’s setting is the ancient story of Tithonus. Tithonus fell in love with Eos, goddess of the dawn, and asked her for immortality.
Unfortunately for Tithonus he did not ask for eternal youth, only eternal life. He, therefore, grows old but never dies while Eos not only never dies but also never grows old. What makes Tithonus’s situation worse is that “the gods themselves cannot recall their gifts” (49). This dramatic monologue is characteristic of Tennyson. Tithonus is an excellent example of a dramatic monologue. There is a speaker, Tithonus, who is not the poet. There is an audience—the gods.
Another characteristic of a dramatic monologue found in Tithonus is an exchange between the speaker and the audience: “I asked thee, ‘Give me immortality?’” (15). A character study is when the speaker speaks from an extraordinary perspective: Tithonus is looking back on his decision, a decision which the reader will never be able to make but can only dream of making. His portrayal of his decision causes the common response to be rejected: most people would want eternal life, but Tithonus proves this short-sighted.
Tithonus proves the wish for immortality vain by stating that: Why should a man desire in any way To vary from the kindly race of men, Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance Where all should pause, as is most meet for all? (29-31). Another trait of the dramatic monologue is the dramatic, or critical, moment. In Tithonus this moment is when Tithonus decides that he does not want immortality: “take back thy gift” (27). “Tithonus” has all of the basic traits of a dramatic monologue: a speaker who is not the poet, an identifiable audience, an exchange between the two, a critical moment, and a character study of the speaker.
One other trait of a dramatic monologue is a dramatic tension. This tension is between harsh judgment and sympathy. This tension makes the audience see objectively rather than subjectively. The audience has sympathy for Tithonus, because he suffers: “strong hours indignant worked their wills, and beat me down and marred and wasted me” (50) His telling the story also bring sympathy from the audience. The audience must judge Tithonus negatively, because he has made an error. His error was his will “to vary from the kindly race of men” (29). The dramatic tension in “Tithonus” is caused by the clash of the audience’s sympathy with the need to judge Tithonus’s actions. “Tithonus” has many of the traits characteristic of Tennyson. One such tenet is world weariness and the expression for rest, this is portrayed by Tithonus’s desire to grow old and die. Didacticism, or instructiveness, is found in the statement, “happy men. . . have the power to die” (70).
Another tenet of Tennyson present is it is a form of a narrative, a monologue. “Tithonus” also contains the fulfillment of the responsibility as a poet to teach the masses: Tennyson teaches that man’s mortality is a blessing. The great Romantic and Victorian theme of the past is also prevalent in Tithonus’s will to undo the curse of immortality: “take back thy gift” (27). One very obvious tenet of Tennyson is the recasting of ancient myths: Tennyson tells the ancient story of Tithonus. Isolation and estrangement, another tenet of Tennyson, is present in Tithonus’s part man and part god status which alienates him from both: “immortal age beside immortal youth” (22).
Tennyson also uses elevated, stately, medieval diction: “thine,” “thy,” and “thee” (6, 27, 53). In “Tithonus” Tennyson shows that he is a poet of progress and change: “the woods decay, the woods decay and fall” (1). Tennyson also portrays social awareness of the importance his message has to the culture: he shows the social significance of immortality, a dream many people have, and the alienation it causes by varying man “from the kindly race of men” (29). This poem indirectly suppresses sexuality by showing a negative outcome of lust between two individuals. This esoteric poem offers a didactic statement of the poet’s moral and social commitment: “Where all should pause, as is most meet for all” (31).
“Tithonus” has an underlying sense of escapism in that Tithonus wishes to escape the endless frustrations of life: “release me, and restore me to the grave” (72). Through this quote, Tennyson also shows his yearning for permanence, the permanence of death. Tennyson also depicts his patriotism, patriotism to the “race of men” by trying to teach others not to wish to vary from it (29).
“Tithonus” contains most of the major tenets of Tennyson. In the end, this poem is about decision making and the eternal consequences of decisions. Through Tithonus’s misadventures of immortality, the audience learns that immortality is not for man, and it is through the dramatic tension that the audience sees this objectively. Tennyson stresses the art of good decision making and the importance of our decisions because of the possibly eternal significance they have.